Abilene ISD Communications

Cecelia Zertuche knew as a young girl that she wanted public education to be a big part of her life.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Zertuche was raised in Abilene, graduated from Abilene High School and Abilene Christian University, and grew up in the same house with a father, Carlos Rodriguez, who worked for AISD for 40 years, spending the last several years of his career as the district’s Director of Maintenance.

She later earned a master’s degree at the University of Texas-Arlington, and in 1994 embarked on what would become a 30-year career in public education as a teacher in Waco ISD. She worked on five different AISD elementary school campuses, spending most of her time at Bassetti, where she formed lifelong friendships.

Her 30-year career in public education will end in a couple of weeks after she decided earlier this spring to retire at the end of the 2023-24 school year. Zertuche served as the principal from 2019-24.

“This is my second home,” Zertuche said of Bassetti, where she spent 12 of her 17 years in AISD. “I love the people and the kids. When I returned in 2019, many of the same people were here when I worked here earlier in my career. I couldn’t do this job without the wonderful team with me now and the hardworking men and women we have on this campus. I’m biased toward Bassetti, but it’s a great school. It’s not always easy, but that’s part of being in education.”

Zertuche was drawn to public education because of an aunt who was a school counselor. She inspired Zertuche to go down that path, and she never wavered.

“I wanted to be a teacher, and my role model for that was my aunt, Margo Cervantes,” Zertuche said. “She was a counselor in San Angelo when I was young, and she was my inspiration to get my degree in counseling (from ACU in 1994). I thought she did great, wonderful things to help kids, and she did. She passed away before I started my career, but my uncle and cousins always tell me, ‘Aunt Margo is looking down on you and loves what you’re doing.’ “

Soft-spoken and quick with a smile, Zertuche said her drive for the last 30 years has been being around like-minded people who want to help students become the best versions of themselves.

“I love seeing a smile on the face of a student and hoping that I have a connection with that success,” she said. “I’ve helped kids and teachers along the way, hoping they’ve been inspired by something I’ve done. I don’t take credit for that because I know it’s the people I work with daily…people who do the hard work of teaching students who deserve the credit.

“I’ve been privileged to be part of the process,” Zertuche said. “I’m proud of the connection with students, families, teachers, and staff members. And not just at Bassetti, but everywhere I’ve worked.”

Zertuche said while fundamental elements of an education are important, she treasures the relationships and connections above all else. One in particular stands out.

“I will sing Keri Thornburg’s praises to the end of time,” Zertuche said of one of her mentors, who served as the principal at Bassetti and Taylor and is currently Executive Director for Curriculum and Instruction in AISD. “She always seemed to say and do the right things under pressure. I just thought, ‘I want to be like her.’”

Thornburg helped convince Zertuche that leaving Bassetti to take her first assistant principal job in 2017 was the best thing for her career, even “coaching” her during the interview process.

“When I interviewed for the assistant principal job at Dyess and Reagan in 2017, one of the questions I was asked was would I be willing to leave Bassetti,” Zertuche recalled. “Keri was sitting across the room from me, and she was nodding ‘Yes,’ which was hard for me to say because I didn’t want to leave Keri. But she was right because I needed to go out and grow.

“I needed that little push from her to say, ‘Yes, I can do this,’ “ she said. “She’s been my mentor, and I’ve reached out to her for guidance or when I have a question.”

Just a few months into her tenure as principal at Bassetti, the world around Zertuche shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic began. In those days – and the ones that followed when students returned to campuses in August 2000 after being away for five months – her experience as a counselor helped her manage Bassetti.

“I realized during that time that we needed each other,” Zertuche said. “We all went on Spring Break and didn’t return until August. We organized a weekly faculty Zoom call to check in on everyone. I wanted to know how everyone was doing and what they needed, whatever it might have been. It was important to me that they knew that, even though we might not be together, we were still a family and would make it work.”

She made it work for 30 years as a teacher, counselor, and administrator, and now she’s looking forward to being a mom, wife, daughter, and friend. She recently lost her older sister and biggest cheerleader, Julie Rodriguez, and she and her husband, Juan (also an AISD employee), have a 26-year-old special needs daughter who will live with them for the rest of her life.

“This has been a hard year,” Zertuche said. “Juan and I are celebrating our 30th anniversary in June, and we have a trip planned. But right now, I need some peace, quiet, and rest. I asked Juan if I could have a couple of months before I have to do anything or go anywhere, and he said, ‘You take all the time you need. You’ve worked hard and earned it.’“

And she made her Aunt Margo proud.